"I Lost My Left Leg Below the Knee, Pretty Much Instantly"

Nov 7, 2011

Jonathan Herst was the stereotypical big man on campus. He went to college on an athletic scholarship, and admits to spending a lot of time partying and chasing girls. But after getting his undergraduate degree in 2001, Herst felt something was missing in his life. He decided to do something, as he puts it, “for a bigger cause.” So he joined the Army and was eventually sent to Iraq. By 2005, Herst had survived many dangerous patrols without a scratch. But as his squad neared the end of one mission in 2005, Herst felt something bad was going to happen.

“Sure enough about, I would say, fifty feet from our vehicle, I was walking down the middle of a three lane highway and an explosion, about ten feet to my right exploded directly to the side of me.  It was two 155 millimeter mortar rounds taped together with a cell phone detonator, meaning someone had called the number to, they were watching me walk and they blew it up. It lifted me off the ground and threw me across the rest of the highway, or skidded me, across the the side of the highway.

      And, just a lot of, a lot of injuries. I lost my left leg below the knee,  pretty much instantly. The medics said it was still attached but there was no saving it. Half my colon was, or part of my colon was removed. My bladder was perforated. My right leg femoral was slashed. A lot of nerve damage. I was just pretty much laying in the middle of the street like a turtle. You know, just, uh, didn’t feel anything, and didn’t hurt.  I remember screaming out to the guys, you know, "Get back to the vehicle. Get back to the vehicle, take cover," whatever.  And then I tried to stand up and run back to the vehicle and as soon as I tried to stand up, my friend, the bravo team leader just tackled me like a football player to make sure that I'd stay on the ground. And, tried to put a tourniquet on me. It snapped. It broke in half. So he had to put another tourniquet on. Uh, finally stopped the bleeding enough to get me back to the operating room and within twenty minutes I was on the operating table.

      I had four surgeons working on me at once. Just everything was ripped open. Everything was bad.  The last thing I remember, I was laying perfectly 100 percent conscious. And the doctor was talking to me about, "Well, what hurts?" And, and I just said, "Well, the medic in the vehicle on the way here said my leg was broken. I had a compound fracture. But it’s not gonna be amputated. I’m good to go." And, uh, the doctor just said, "Well, okay."  And I said, "So just as long as you save my leg, I’m happy. I don’t want to be an amputee." Well, at that time a female E5 medic walked up. She looked at me in the eyes and I saw her look down at my leg. And then she turned around and throw up. And I knew right then and there, I said, "Okay doc, obviously my leg is gone, so just put me out and I don’t want to remember anything." And so I woke up two days later and the leg was gone and I was stitched up.

Herst is finishing work on a Master of Social Work degree at University of Kentucky. His comments are part of U.K.’s oral history project, “From Combat to Kentucky.”